Introduction to the General Epistles
Today we are going to talk about the books of the New Testament known as the General Epistles. There are seven of these books, bearing the names James, Peter, John and Jude. The General Epistles usually get less attention than Paul’s epistles, but they are an integral part of the Bible and contain vital information for Christians and so should not be overlooked even though they are mostly short books of the Bible and are found in the New Testament’s final pages. They provide a glimpse of what it was like as the first generation of believers died off and churches began maturing and false teachers snuck in, and persecution increased, and the Lord still hadn’t come back yet as he was expected to during the lifetime of the first generation of believers.
These letters are also referred to as the “catholic” epistles, with “catholic” meaning universal rather than being a reference to the Catholic Church. They are called “general” epistles because they are more general correspondence to churches in a wider geographical area instead of “occasional” letters which were written out of some particular circumstance or occasion. Some have argued that 2 and 3 John should not be included in the general epistles because they are addressed specifically to individuals, but others contend that these two epistles were meant for the Church at large, but that John, in order to protect the members from persecution, addressed them to individuals.
So what is going on that led to the writing of these letters? There were periods during the first century when the church, in one place or another, felt the pain of suffering and hardship. These trials came from various sources, some inside the church and others from outside the church. Nevertheless, they were equally distressing and the Christians at the time were troubled as to why all the suffering was going on. On top of that, the supposedly imminent return of Christ (Parousia) had not taken place, which added to the early church’s angst. These letters were written to encourage the early church to stand firm in the face of this persecution and to continue on in the faith and to continue to love one another through it all.
Themes of the General Epistles
The best three-word synopsis I can think of for the General Epistles is the three Christian virtues the Apostle Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 13:13: Faith, Hope, and Love. These are reflected in the themes of the General Epistles: James speaks of faith, Peter speaks of hope, and John speaks of love.
A bullet-point list of the themes of the General Epistles would look something like this:
· In this world, the church will encounter trials, hostility, and persecution
· Testing and hardship develop character
· Stay true to God, no matter what
· Don’t ever give up – persevere
· Love one another
Let’s look at these seven books, one by one:
Author – James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19) – a prominent leader of the church in Jerusalem
Audience – Jewish Christians of the Diaspora (dispersion) living outside Palestine
Date – as early as AD 45 and certainly before AD 62 when James was believed to be martyred.
Theme – Instructions on Christian Living (paraenesis) – a lot of “dos” and “don’ts” (59 imperatives)
There is some debate over who wrote the book, as there are a number of men in the New Testament with the name James. The consensus is that the author was the brother of Jesus to whom He made a special appearance after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). This James is not to be confused with James, son of Alphaeus, who was one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. James was apparently a non-believer early on, who later came to faith and became the recognized leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18) and presided over the Council of Jerusalem, the meeting where the Church decided to not require circumcision of gentiles coming into the Church (Acts 15).
After Stephen was martyred (Acts 7:55-8:3) persecution increased and the diaspora began. Diaspora means “scattering.” In the face of growing persecution, believers scattered throughout the Roman world. Apparently this was God’s plan – before long there are thriving communities of faith in Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, Cyprus and elsewhere. The scattered believers were facing various trials and afflictions. James encouraged them to recognize trials and problems as opportunities to develop Christian character. The testing would produce patience, steadfastness, unswerving constancy and persistence. Doing this would make a Christian “perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (1:4). The book is really a treatise on the faith that endures in the face of all kinds of obstacles. Especially notable is the close similarity between this epistle and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). The question James attempts to answer is “What is faith?” In his mind faith is neither an academic nor irrelevant inquiry. Instead it is something that pierces to the depth of one’s heart and to the center or one’s everyday world. Faith is not ancillary to living – faith is part and parcel of living.
Key Verses / Ideas
· Christianity is a way of life, not just a system of beliefs
· Testing of faith is a good thing – develops endurance and maturity (1:1-12)
· Be doers of the word, not just hearers (1:22)
· No partiality or favoritism in the church (2:1-13)
· Faith without works is dead (2:14-26)
· Guard your tongues (3:1-12)
· Patience in suffering (5:7-12)
· Praying for the sick (5:13-20)
Author – Peter, the disciple of Jesus – the great apostle of Pentecost – formerly Simon the rock…
Audience – Jewish / Gentile Christians of Asia Minor
Date – if Peter, probably AD 62-64, if a later scribe who wrote in Peter’s name, 90-150 AD.
THEME of 1 Peter – Encouragement to believers to live holy lives, distinctive lives, and to persevere in a time of severe trial and persecution because of the great hope we have
THEME of 2 Peter –Living faithfully in this world until the Lord returns
Although some critics dispute it, the book tells us it is written by the apostle Peter (1:1). Peter was a fisherman from Bethsaida and the older brother of Andrew. He played a major part in the earthly ministry of Jesus and was one of his inner circle of disciples (along with James and John). He was the leader of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 1-11) and appears as a fearless preacher, defender, and administrator. Peter, now an old man, writes to believers who are beset by trials and sufferings. He had found the Lord sufficient; now he exhorts others to cast all their cares on Him, because He cares for them (5:7).
The book of 1 Peter is written from Rome (referred to as “Babylon” 5:13) and addressed to Jewish Christians driven out of Rome and scattered throughout Asia Minor. Peter was eventually executed during this persecution. Again the word suffering is front and center, in fact the word appears 17 times in 1 Peter, being used to describe both the suffering of Christ and the suffering of his people.
Assuming the early dating of 1 Peter (AD 62-64), the pressure of Nero’s persecution may have begun to be felt in some of the provinces out from Rome as well. People were beginning to be tortured and killed for their faith. Peter writes to encourage Christians and give them direction, he focuses on the great hope we share of the coming of Christ and our deliverance. This certainty of Christ’s return would provide a great source of hope and comfort, even as Paul encouraged the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
Many, but not all, scholars view 2 Peter as pseudepigraphical. In fact, of all the pseudepigraphical texts, 2 Peter is considered the most pseudepigraphical of them all. But the most interesting thing 2 Peter is its apparent plagiarism. By most estimates nineteen of Jude’s twenty-five verses have been reworked to reappear somewhere in 2 Peter. This was noticed in ancient times, but most back then believed it was the other way around, with Jude “borrowing” from 2 Peter. Many scholars think 2 Peter was written well into the second century.
The main themes of 2 Peter are a warning against false ministers who appear to be within the Church and a call to remain steadfast in the faith. Assuming 2 Peter was written by Peter, the feeling conveyed is that the author knows his time is limited and he knows what is to happen when he dies (false teachers will rush in) so he is sharing what is on his mind as a pastor, warning believers of what will happen once he is gone.
Key Verses / Ideas
· As God, who calls you is holy, you be holy in all your conduct (1 Peter 1:15)
· You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s peculiar treasure… (1 Peter 2:9)
· Live as resident aliens (1 Peter 2:11)
· Suffering – trust God and do good (1 Peter 4:19)
· God’s power gives us everything we need to live a godly life – great promises – that we may share in the very life and being of God (2 Peter 1:4)
Author – John, the disciple of Jesus – the great apostle, the beloved apostle
Audience – Churches of Asia Minor
Date – 85- 90 or 110-120 AD, a time of persecution under Domitian, and syncretism
THEME of 1 John – Encouragement to believers to walk in the light, to love one another, and a warning against being led astray.
THEME of 2 John – Continue in the truth of Christ
THEME of 3 John – Proper behavior in church
As we mentioned when studying John’s gospel, the dominant view today is that it was produced in stages. The Apostle John was responsible for the first draft of that gospel, but others expanded and edited it. The three Johannine letters are usually ascribed to one of these later editors of Johns’ gospel rather than to John himself. A popular theory holds that someone named “John the Elder” wrote these. According to Eusebius, John the Elder was a disciple of the apostle John and was a member of his congregation. Either way, the similarities in the imagery and themes of the three Johannine letters is so similar to John’s gospel that you can’t avoid noticing it.
The occasion for all three letters is the outbreak of conflict in the churches. A division was developing within the Church. Some members were splitting off from others and forming their own fellowship (1 John 2:19). There is some indication those leaving thought of themselves as “progressives,” pushing the church to “go beyond” the original teach of Christ to embrace a new revelation (2 John 9). They were also apparently trying to entice the rest of the membership to join them (2:26).
Key Verses / Ideas
· Walk in the light. (1 John 1:9)
· Do not love the world. (1 John 2:15)
· We will be like him (1 John 3:1-3)
· Love means laying down your life for another (1 John 3: 16-17)
· Love one another (1 John 4:7-11)
· Jesus has come in the flesh (against Gnosticism)
Author – Jude – a servant of Jesus and brother of James – brother of Jesus
Audience – Jewish Christians
Date – AD 55-80, probably around 65
THEME of Jude – Stay true to the gospel of Christ, don’t fall or turn away
“Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (v 3).
The main theme and purpose of Jude’s epistle is to counteract the threat of certain men who had “crept in unnoticed” into the Church and “were busily engaged in turning the grace of God into an excuse for open immorality and were denying the only true God and Jesus Christ the Lord” (verse 4). From the first century on, the church has been threatened by false teaching – we must always be on our guard.
John’s letter is a polemical letter. It employs harsh rhetoric, laden with threats, insults and derogatory remarks. If it is unpleasant to read, this may be because it deals with an unpleasant topic; the capacity for religion to do great harm. The author is convinced that his readers are being hurt. They are not simply being convinced to accept wrong ideas; they are being duped and exploited by people who are only pretending to have their interests at heart (v. 18).
Key Verses / Ideas
· False teachers – warning against false teachers, especially those who reject the lordship of Christ
· Christian Conduct – genuine followers of Christ will faithfully portray Christ in their words and conduct.
· Apostasy – Jude also warns against apostasy – turning away from Christ